From speakers and panelists, in crowded meeting rooms and an arena-sized hall, the reported 14,000 Israel supporters attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s three-day annual policy conference in Washington heard a steady message again and again: Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, is a threat to Israel and the world. It was a message AIPAC supporters would take to Capitol Hill on Tuesday when they lobbied Congress for the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda.
Yet, if the goal of a diplomatic agreement among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany and Iran was to reduce or eliminate that threat, from the opening of the conference, speakers viewed the possibility of reaching a satisfactory accord with something approaching scorn.
“We must distrust and verify,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). That distrust may have been the rationale for scheduling nine sessions on Iran during the conference. As at last year’s conference, Iran was the chief issue discussed.
Coons’ position puts him in line with AIPAC but at odds with the Obama administration, which wants to let negotiations with Iran play out before announcing additional sanctions or coercive action.
On Sunday, it was Treasury Secretary Jack Lew who reiterated the administration’s position. He said that legislation mandating additional sanctions on Iran should nuclear negotiations fail could endanger those negotiations.
“We do not need new sanctions now,” he said to a tepid response. “The sanctions in place are working to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and passing new sanctions now could derail the talks that are underway and splinter the international cooperation that has made our sanctions regime so effective.”
Last month, in the face of stiff administration opposition, AIPAC ended its intense lobbying for a Senate bill calling for new sanctions on Iran.
But on Monday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), renewed the call for new sanctions.
“I believe we have to keep the pressure on,” he said. “I believe the Senate should pass new bipartisan sanctions legislation that would take effect if the current negotiations don’t succeed.”
By that time, AIPAC’s new Iran sanctions offensive was already underway. On Sunday, it released a letter to President Barack Obama signed by a bipartisan group of senators, which echoed the tropes heard throughout the conference.
“Should an acceptable final agreement be reached, your administration will need to work together with Congress to enact implementing legislation to provide longer term sanctions relief beyond existing waiver authorities — either through suspension, repeal or amendment of statutory sanctions,” the letter read.
“We believe that Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” it continued. “We believe any agreement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.”
The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) as well as Coons and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
Photos by Marc Shapiro
At the session, which included Coons, former Sen. Joe Lieberman argued for a strong congressional hand in the Iran nuclear issue.
“If Congress does not get involved, diplomacy has zero chance of success,” he said to applause.
DANGER OF PROLIFERATION
As his audience knew, that is easier said than done. And at a session called “The Middle East in 2014,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that no matter how favorable the outcome of negotiations, “the Iranians have won.”
“These negotiations are about how much time we have to detect Iran’s cheating,” Satloff said. “These negotiations are not about denying Iran the ability to cheat.”
Looking to the civil war in Syria, Satloff considered the question of who was more dangerous, Sunni extremists in the Syrian opposition or Shiite extremists in the form of Hezbollah.
“The U.S. has to worry most about an Iranian victory in Syria,” he asserted. “That would be a huge blow to the United States.”
“The question is, which kind of extremists are closer to having a nuclear weapon?” offered Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic and Bloomberg. “Hezbollah is closest to this.”
In a session on “Possibilities for a Final Nuclear Deal With Iran,” panelists focused more on the effects of a nuclear Iran than on reaching a deal.
Iran maintains it will be fully transparent and do everything but build a bomb, said Yuval Steinetz, Israel’s minister of intelligence. But as a “threshold nuclear state,” Iran will continue to make its neighbors nervous. Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will conclude that “sooner or later Iran will get the bomb” and will develop nuclear weapons programs of their own, he argued.
ALSO READ, AIPAC 2014: BALTIMORE GOES TO AIPAC.
“An Iranian bomb will lead to proliferation all over the world — and to the first nuclear war,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, (D-Calif.). “How far away is Iran from making a bomb? The answer now is months. If any treaty now is successful, the answer would be years.”
Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted the advantages the United States has over Iran in negotiations.
Iran is a mid-sized power with a troubled economy, hated throughout the region and without networks of international alliances, he said. “A super- power ought to be able to coerce a medium-sized power to meet its [Iran’s] international obligations.”
Those obligations arise from Iran’s signature on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. In a session called “The Global Implications of a Nuclear Iran,” Emily Landau, senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed that a nuclear Iran would lead to an unravel-ing of the movement toward nonproliferation globally.
But she said there is no agreement among experts about what Iran is aiming for with its nuclear program. Iran wants to look ambiguous, Landau said. “The way they move forward is by exploiting ambiguity.”
The administration is testing Iran’s motives through “forceful negotiations,” he said, rejecting criticism that the interim agreement the P5+1 nations signed with Iran in November has resulted in the unraveling of sanctions.
“We have not changed one piece of the sanctions architecture,” he said. “And yet we are able to negotiate. Our eyes, my friends, are wide open. … And you can be sure that if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel.”
An agreement will pass the test if it can answer yes to three questions, he said. “First, will it make certain that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon? Second, can it continuously assure the world that Iran’s program remains entirely peaceful, as it claims? And third, will the agreement increase our visibility on the nuclear program and expand the breakout time so that if they were to try to go for a bomb, we know we will have time to act?”
Reiterating his slogan that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” Kerry said that if negotiations fail, it would take Congress “two hours” to pass new sanctions.
“President Obama and I support those sanctions under those circumstances,” said Kerry.
Closing the conference on Tuesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his long-standing position that the world must prevent Iran from acquiring the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. This differs from the U.S. position, which is to prevent Iran from building a weapon.
“That means we must dismantle their heavy water reactor, underground enrichment facilities, get rid of stockpiles of enriched uranium and their centrifuges,” he said. “Unfortunately the leading powers of the world are talking about leaving Iran with the capability to enrich uranium. I hope they don’t do that, because that would be a grave error. It would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power.”
Netanyahu pledged to the Israel supporters, “I will do whatever I must to defend the Jewish State of Israel.”
When he took the dais Monday morning to kick off that day’s installment of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke with urgency about the tumultuous situation in the Middle East, the importance of Israel on the world stage and the threat of a nuclear Iran.
The message struck a chord with the 24 students from the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School who had trekked to Washington, D.C., to join the expected 14,000 fellow attendees as one of the conference’s larger high school delegations. For 10th-grader Daniel Goldman, the speech from the 2008 Republican nominee for president typified the energy AIPAC works to harness every year.
“I personally liked everyone’s passion, especially John McCain,” said Goldman. “It was really empowering.”
The day before, the students danced onstage with an African-American preacher from Detroit, who turned the conference into a hands-clapping gospel frenzy, and had lunch with other Baltimore-area AIPAC attendees. On Monday, in addition to McCain’s foreign policy talk, they heard from Israeli tech company representatives and attended talks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the state of Israeli innovation.
For the students, who were in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, AIPAC gave them a chance to hear about the benefits of the U.S.-Israel relationship, technological innovations and political issues and, for some, to further their support for Israel.
“It makes me really want to look at the situation with a more optimistic point of view,” said Emma Silverman, a 10th-grader. “I think it’s incredible to see so many people come together for Israel.”
The students would meet with six different federal representatives on Tuesday.
Max Meizlish, a Beth Tfiloh graduate who is now president of Terps for Israel at the University of Maryland, College Park, was attending his fourth AIPAC policy conference this week. When he attended his first with Beth Tfiloh, he was reeled in by the diverse crowd that came together for the cause of Israel. He continues to be inspired by the beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Israel, he said.
Meizlish, whose organization was named as student activists of the year by AIPAC, hopes to secure some kind of public policy position, perhaps in lobbying.
“The point [of the activism] is to show people there is a strong community out there that supports this relationship,” he explained. “It’s much more than what you see on the news.”
For Meizlish and others, the U.S.-Israel relationship isn’t just a Jewish issue, it’s an American issue, and one in which he hopes to engage other campus leaders.
Photos by Marc Shapiro
“They see they can make a substantive impact on [others] the rest of their lives,” he said.
The adult leaders from Baltimore took a similar approach. Pro-Israel activist Bill Fox said a huge part of the AIPAC gathering is education on the issues, the facts and the movement’s strategies. Fox, who sits on AIPAC’s national council, is chairman of the mid-Atlantic region of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and chairman of Maryland for Israel Bonds; he said he leaves AIPAC armed with the right information.
“Far too many of our co-religionists do not feel that connection [to Israel],” he explained. “I feel it’s very important to do whatever I can do to try to help Jews connect and reconnect with Israel and the importance of Israel.”
Connecting with Israel, for some, means being aware of certain realities in the Middle East.
“People don’t grasp that in Iran, America is the big Satan,” said P.J. Pearlstone, vice chair of the Baltimore District Council of AIPAC, a member of the board of directors of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and incoming chair of the Pearlstone Center. “Before they say death to Israel, they say death to America.”
Ellen Lightman, co-chair of the Baltimore-Israel Coalition, said Iran is a major source of frustration among activists, but AIPAC is reinvigorating.
“Coming to the policy conference not only puts things in perspective, but also re-energizes one’s spirit to continue activism,” she said. “A nuclear Iran will change the world; it will not only change Israel. Coming here underscores the big picture of why we do what we do.”
ALSO READ, AIPAC 2014: IRAN TOPS AGENDA.
And AIPAC is more than just an educational opportunity, attendees were quick to point out. With an opportunity to interact with and lobby legislators, attendees see their convictions in action.
“I feel like I can actually make a difference,” said Pearlstone. “Here, we can really see moving the needle.”
That mission was not lost on the conference’s younger attendees. Alex Friedman, an eighth-grader at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and son of former president and chairman of AIPAC’s board, Howard Friedman ñ who is also the chairman of the board of The Associated ñ was excited to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak firsthand about Israel and its issues.
“The security of Israel and America’s health is essential to the world for generations to come,” he said.
For high school students going to college in the fall, they said, walking into each of the plenary sessions and seeing the thousands of like-minded attendees offers a sense of the enormity and unity of AIPAC.
“Last year [at AIPAC], I left with a sense of ‘wow!’ “ said Avi Shidman, a senior at Pikesville High School. “I feel that every American Jew owes Israel a part of their spirit.”
Shidman, along with fellow Pikesville senior Jory Parson, felt armed with the skills and knowledge to serve as ambassadors of the Jewish people and Israel. Parson will attend the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall, which has an active and large Jewish community. Shidman will attend the University of Alabama, where he knows he will be among the minority.
“It’s very inspiring as an 18-year-old male going into the world, into college, next year,” said Parson. “We’ll be able to articulate who we are and stand up for our people.”
For most Jews in the United States, hunting laws are not a concern. Following World War II, most settled in urban or suburban areas, far from roaming turkeys, elk, bears and deer, outside of the occasional casualty in the highway emergency lane.
Few even realize that the same seemingly archaic statutes that in some places prevent liquor purchases on Sundays, otherwise known as blue laws, also restrict hunting.
That troubles Josh First, a businessman, former congressional candidate and political activist in Harrisburg, Pa., who happens to be a proud hunter. He also is an Orthodox Jew, meaning that his observance of Shabbat — and an 1873 Pennsylvania law that outlaws most large-animal hunting — necessitates going the whole weekend without firing a shot.
First has signed on as an adviser with Hunters United for Sunday Hunting, which brought a lawsuit against the state’s Game Commission after years of unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Sunday hunting ban in the state legislature. It’s even become a campaign issue in the Keystone State’s gubernatorial race, with Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who, after five terms in Congress representing areas in and around Northeast Philadelphia, is making the law’s repeal part of the platform in her challenge to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Pennsylvania has the largest hunter population in the United States, according to LehighValleyLive.com. The most recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University showed Schwartz, a member of the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, would beat Corbett, 45 percent to 35 percent.
Although Schwartz is Jewish, First still finds himself in a minority of a minority. He’s the only Jew in HUSH.
“Culturally, Jews are traditionally urban and politically liberal and not exposed to hunting or trapping,” First said, explaining why there are so few Jewish hunters. “And these are practices that are considered, let’s be honest, goyish.”
First regularly goes hunting for deer, bears and wild turkeys with other Orthodox Jews from Harrisburg, New York City and Los Angeles and keeps his hunting cabin strictly kosher, he said.
“I think overcoming judgmentalism and cultural bias is probably the biggest challenge,” he said. “If you tell a religious Jew in New York that you’re hunting, most of them think, ‘You couldn’t possibly be Jewish. Jews don’t hunt.’ ”
The Religious View
“In Jewish law, hunting for sport is pretty universally prohibited,” said Bendory. “Hunting because you need the animal in some way is permissible — hunting where the animal is going to be used, if not by you but by someone else. Then it becomes a discussion as to whether or not it’s an appropriate activity to engage in, and the reality is, in the modern world, there are few situations in which the Jew is hunting to use the animal.”
“Using” a hunted animal can present some problems, since an animal that is killed before ritual slaughter is not considered kosher. Another legal issue surrounds the general prohibition of unnecessarily inflicting pain on another living creature.
First, though, believes that most of the Orthodox opinion on the subject comes from a lack of hands-on experience.
“You have to see something with your own eyes, you have to do something with your own hands, you have to witness something in order to understand what it is,” he argued. “For somebody to sit at their desk and pontificate on something they don’t know a thing about is shameful. It is not being a real halachic authority.”
First points out that no part of an animal he and his group hunts is wasted; they will even distribute its meat to their non-Jewish friends.
Bendory isn’t moved by such a stance.
“Whether or not you can bend the halachic prohibition on hunting by saying, ‘Well, I’m shooting the animal for my non-Jewish friends here,’ is a highly debatable question,” he said.
“There has to be a purpose,” added Rabbi Chaim Schertz, senior rabbi at the Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg. “Halachic authorities do not feel that this is a Jewish value; however, from my perspective, the skill involved in being able to understand how animals live and what the woods are like and to be outdoors — to have the ability to survive — that to me is an important skill to attain.
“But it does not require me to actually kill any animals,” continued the rabbi.
Schertz, however, noted an opinion by Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, who wrote in his 18th-century work, “Noda B’Yehudah,” that it may even be acceptable for Jews to hunt for sport in certain cases. Because animals were created for people’s use, the logic goes, it could be argued that deriving pleasure from the sport of hunting is a tangible use.
Even if the question of whether it is permitted for Orthodox Jews to hunt can be murky, the rules of Shabbat are clear, and the Sunday hunting ban remains an issue in states other than Pennsylvania.
The Sunday Hunting Coalition, which includes the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Association and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance among its members, is lobbying for legislation to repeal Sunday hunting bans in the 11 states that still have full or partial bans on the books. Unlike Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware, which all have full Sunday hunting bans, states such as Maryland and West Virginia have partial bans in which Sunday hunting laws are decided by individual counties.
According to Jake McGuigan, the National Shooting Sports Association’s director of state affairs and government relations, this year’s efforts are focused on repealing Virginia’s Sunday hunting law; Pennsylvania is next on its agenda.
Last week, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 1237, which would allow Sunday hunting on private property. Written permission from the property owner would be required. The bill is expected to pass the Virginia State Senate this week and be signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has publicly expressed his position in favor of the measure.
email@example.com; JNS.org contributed to this story.